Windfall turned out to be an illusion

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER
  • Updated: February 15, 2010 - 10:42 AM

She found out the hard way: It's tough earning money as a "mystery shopper," unless you're the one running an Internet scam.

A mysterious check worth $2,618 arrived just when Lisa Rae Thompson needed it most.

Her husband had lost his job three weeks earlier, and Thompson, a stay-at-home mom, was worried about their finances. Thinking the cashier's check was a gift from a concerned friend, Thompson used the money to cover overdue rent on the family's north Minneapolis apartment, unpaid bills and car insurance and $250 worth of groceries.

It took a week before Thompson learned she had been the victim of a scam that started when she signed up as a "mystery shopper." Now she owes $2,400 to Wells Fargo, which cashed the check on Feb. 3, even though a single phone call to the issuing bank would have revealed it to be fake. Wells Fargo didn't officially notify Thompson that the check had bounced for nine days.

"I'm not expecting anyone to take the fall for this but me," said Thompson, 46.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Peggy Gunn declined to talk about Thompson's case, citing privacy concerns. "We encourage customers facing this type of situation to file a police report on the fraud and seek law enforcement assistance to stop the fraudulent activity," Gunn said

Thompson filed a fraud report with the Minneapolis police on Tuesday. It's hardly the first time investigators have heard this story. In fact, the mystery shopper scam is so common that federal and state agencies have issued numerous public warnings about it.

Here's how it works: Swindlers pose as market research companies willing to pay people to shop and then report on their experiences. They get victims to cash phony cashier's checks and wire them the money on the pretense that they're evaluating how well money-transfer companies operate. By the time the check bounces, the real money is gone and the "shopper" is holding the bag.

Early last month, Thompson saw a mystery shopper ad on Facebook. It sounded like the kind of work she could do between caring for her two young children. Thompson provided her contact info and waited for the next step.

Meanwhile, the swindlers got hold of a cashier's check from Timberwood Bank of Tomah, Wis., created an authentic-looking replica and made it payable to Thompson. On Feb. 2, they sent the phony check overnight using the return address and stolen FedEx account number of a California marketing firm.

But the swindlers bungled a key part of their scheme. They didn't send Thompson instructions on how to wire them the money until the day after she cashed it. And then the e-mail they sent got routed to Thompson's junk e-mail folder, so she didn't see it until the money was gone.

When Thompson realized what had happened last week, she said, she spent the morning "bawling and breaking down and wailing."

About a year ago, Attorney General Lori Swanson sent a warning to Minnesota banks about an increase in fraud involving cashier's checks, spokesman Ben Wogsland said.

"The banks could probably catch a lot of these things on the front end by asking some detailed questions of the person bringing the cashier's check in," Wogsland said.

The law may require banks to release funds from a check within a certain period of time, he said, but "that doesn't mean the check's good. If you're a consumer, the only real way to verify is to call the bank that it's drawn on."

In recent weeks, Timberwood Bank has received thousands of inquiries about checks identical to the one Thompson received, operations officer Dennis Peters said. If a teller had called to inquire about Thompson's check, Peters said, "we would have known by remitter and check number that it was fraudulent."

Gunn, the Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said the bank has procedures to protect customers and tries to educate them about protecting their money from scammers and thieves.

"As a service to our customers, we may decide [based on the customer's account history with the bank] to cash a check that is drawn on another bank," Gunn said. "Regardless of whether the check is cashed or deposited, the bank has the right to charge back [or reverse] the amount, if the check is subsequently returned unpaid by the other financial institution."

"It's important for consumers to remember that if they end up unwittingly participating in these scams, they are at risk for losing money," she added.

Thompson said she has banked with Wells Fargo for 25 years and hopes the bank gives her time to replenish her account, which is now overdrawn by $2,400.

Though she feels "humiliated" by the experience, she told her story to Whistleblower to prevent others from falling prey to the scam. "I don't want anybody else to go through the mess I've been through," she said.

  • SHOP AROUND FOR LEGITIMATE EMPLOYERS

    The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips to would-be mystery shoppers:

    Be skeptical of solicitors who guarantee a job, charge a fee, sell certification or don't have a corporate e-mail address. Search the Internet and check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for complaints against a company.

    It is generally difficult to make a living as a mystery shopper; beware of those who promise otherwise.

    If a stranger sends you a check to cash and forward the proceeds to another person, it is likely a scam.

    One source for companies that hire mystery shoppers is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). They have an A-plus rating with the BBB for having no complaints filed with the BBB in the past 36 months. Find the MSPA at www.mysteryshop.org.

    JANE FRIEDMANN

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